“Matt Kellett’s baritone is rich and undulating, and soprano Grace Nyandoro is warm and bright”
La Bohème is basically the opera equivalent of Romeo and Juliet: a tragic love story, very accessible and (therefore) very overdone. If you’ve seen one opera, chances are very high that it’s this one. So I completely understand the impetus to upheave the production and give the audience something entirely unexpected. Director Mark Ravenhill has tried just that, setting up, not in nineteenth century Paris, but in a doctor’s staff room at a modern-day hospital.
I find this slightly confusing, because whilst we preface the opera with a scene in which Mimi is in a hospital surrounded by healthcare professionals in scrubs, the opening act of the actual opera has everyone playing their usual roles, one an artist, the other a writer, in their shared flat. Except, they’re still in the hospital staff room, still in scrubs. So presumably this is Mimi’s hallucination? It’s not entirely clear. And not to go on, but if you’re going to change the setting can’t you find an equally romantic replacement? Nineteenth century bohemian Paris is hard to beat, I’ll concede, but a hospital staff room, depressingly decorated with a bit of Christmas tinsel, is especially bleak.
As has come to be expected with King’s Head opera, the script has been entirely re-written with only occasional nods to the original. “Your tiny hand is frozen, let me warm it in mine”, for example, is now “Relax, your hands are freezing, we could just chill out for now”. There’s something slightly less placable about the contemporary script: where you might forgive a silly back-and-forth sung in Italian, or even a more formal English, it doesn’t sound quite so good sung in the modern vernacular: “Hey mate/Where’ve you been?/I got held up.” Or rather it simply plays for laughs, which gets a bit boring after a while.
So that’s all the naysaying, I think. The performances themselves are sublime. We’re warned at the start of the evening that someone is singing through a cold, but I don’t quite catch who, and whilst I might have my suspicions (a few ‘M’s turn vaguely to ‘B’s) I really couldn’t say for sure because all four singers are absolutely stunning. The two tenors, Philip Lee and Daniel Koek, both particularly shine in their dulcet falsettos; Matt Kellett’s baritone is rich and undulating, and soprano Grace Nyandoro is warm and bright. There’s a slight lack of sexual chemistry between Lee and Koek, but their caring for one another is believable enough, so that’ll do. Kellett and Nyandoro get the biggest laughs, unafraid to be physical and silly- at one point, Nyandoro has Kellett by his lanyard, walking him on all fours like a dog.
Co-writers Eaton and Lee have also tweaked the story to be a same-sex relationship (Mimi’s real name is now Lucas rather than Lucia) which works without a hitch- I can’t think of anything lost by doing this and it’s something rarely- perhaps never- seen in old operas. But I do wish that, rather than a hyper realistic Grindr match, it had been truer to the bohemian romance of the original with a genuine meet-cute.
With opera traditionally un-miked, it’s often actually quite hard to hear what anyone is saying, so performing in a little room like the King’s Head is absolutely ideal to really hear the singers. The modernising of the story is slightly convoluted, and loses a lot of the aesthetic romance usually inbuilt. But it doesn’t take away from the beautiful performances, nor the heart-breaking end.
“a static and disappointing production that chooses not to evoke any discussion of gender politics”
In a time when notions of patriarchal norms and practises are being questioned by empowered women, Jorge Robinet’s gender-swapped revival of Mark Ravenhill’s 2006 play ‘The Cut’ feels like it should be a production of topical urgency. Unfortunately, this urgency is lost in a static and disappointing production that chooses not to evoke any discussion of gender politics.
The play follows Paul (David Paulin), a man who works for the government administering some kind of archaic, violent surgical procedure known as ‘the cut’. When an unusual patient – Johanna (Francesca Ottley) – comes to him one day demanding ‘the cut’, believing she has waited her whole life for this moment, Paul’s life is seemingly sent into disarray. Throughout the play, we see the repercussions the violent act has on his home life with his wife, Susan (Molly Wheaton), and his daughter, Stephanie (Katie Warnusz-Steckel), a university student who strongly opposes the traditions that her father’s work upholds.
From the outset, this production wanted to make us, the audience, implicit in whatever violent act was about to take place. Not only were we seated in the round, but as we entered the space we were invited to vote on who should be the recipient of ‘the cut’. This allows for actors Ottley and Warnusz-Steckel to alternate characters depending on who wins the vote – Ottley won on this particular night. The voting aspect made space for all of the cast members to demonstrate an impressive amount of improvisation that was undeniably gripping, comedic and unsettling all at once. It was an exciting choice that was lost on the rest of the production. Whilst being seated in the round allowed for the actors to occasionally address us, this technique can only work if the performers and scenes are given movement; in moments of fierce dialogue between two characters, it was disappointing and alienating to be staring at a cast member’s back for ten minutes. The standstill nature of this production also meant that Ravenhill’s dialogue, which is sparse and staccato, exploiting the realist techniques of unfinished sentences and overlapping lines, slowed down the piece. Scenes dragged, became disengaging and, at times, frustrating to listen to. When you haven’t been been given the opportunity to connect to characters in the first place, it’s difficult to care about their emotional journey . Despite a lack of direction creating a stilted disconnect to certain characters, special mention must be made to Katie Warnusz-Steckel, who despite playing characters that were silent for two thirds of the play, remained captivating and compelling throughout.
In a piece with such brutal and disturbing undertones, the underwhelming nature of the action meant that key moments of the play felt limp and lacklustre; emotional breakdowns felt awkward and unjustified and the actual ‘cut’ – despite taking place next to where we sat – didn’t push far enough in a play that feels inherently violent. What the moment of ‘the cut’ did do, however, was demonstrate a slick and noteworthy element of this production – the lighting (designed by Matthew Prentice). Cued by actors with a click of the fingers, spotlights would appear, blackouts would occur, and this was one thing that gave the show a sense of urgency and pace that was absent from the physical performance.
Of course, not all gender-swapped performances must demand explicit discussion of gender politics, but the premise of this particular play leaves open the opportunity to provoke these conversations. Indeed, the space, the concept, the lighting and some moments of great acting give this production all the ingredients of an exciting show, but it ultimately falls victim to a static lack of direction that will alienate and confuse it’s audience.